[ the craft of the guitar maker ]


12. Under the Carpet

YOU may find yourself driving down a motorway one day. Suddenly a large truck crosses the central reservation, and heads straight for you, out of control.

This is an entirely appropriate moment to feel fear. As the psychologists tell us, fear is nature's way of preparing us for 'fight or flight'. It is one of our most deeply-rooted and profound responses to the world, based on the need to survive. The most immediately noticeable change is the increased rate of metabolism we breathe harder and our hearts beat faster. Unless the situation is so extreme that we are emotionally overloaded, we find that we are capable of fast and clear thought. In this particular situation, we would conclude that it is pointless to try to reason with a 10ton truck. Fighting it would also be doomed to disaster. Quite rightly, we would run like hell. Our faster reaction time may well enable us to drive out of trouble. When the danger is past, there is a period of readjustment, then we can continue on our way feeling recovered.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where we often find our-selves in situations that are less clearly defined. We have learned to be fearful in many social contexts, and yet the response of either fighting or running away seems equally inappropriate. So we endure, and we suffer from anxiety. It is an awful, slow-burning fear. We are trapped where there is no outlet through physical exertion. Our bodies are going like crazy, and yet we remain more or less passive. In the face of all the internal agitation, we try to present an image of calm and self-confidence to the social gathering. It is almost unbearable.

We all experience situations like this, but because they are uncomfortable to recall, we tend to push them to one side. We persuade ourselves either that the experience is not significant, or alternatively that there is nothing we can do in the face of it, so we may as well put up and shut up. In fact, fear and anxiety are among the most profound and universal emotions that we ever experience. We ignore them at our peril, and can spend our lives walking over carpets full of increasingly large mounds!

Performers regularly find themselves in these uncomfortable situations. It is, if you like, part of the job. Luthiers might be expected to have quite stress-free patterns of work, but the reality is rather different. A maker works in private, it is true. But every time you show your work to a player you are, in a sense, on trial. The 'audience' is far more critical than any you can face as a performer in public. Apart from this, some of us turn performer every now and then in a whole variety of ways that are also part of the job. We teach, we lecture, and sometimes we give public displays of woodworking skills particular to our very specialist craft. I have had to overcome my own fears as much as any musician. At first we are acutely aware of the negative effects of our anxieties, and there are many. There is often an increase in sweating, which some consider to have survival value in giving better grip over rough terrain, or when involved in close combat. In the subtler world of holding instrument necks, this can be a serious problem. Not only do the hands often feel damp, they may also feel cold and unresponsive. This seems to be due to another of the amazing metabolic changes brought on by fear. It is far more than 'just an emotion': as far as our bodies are concerned, it is literally a matter of life and death. So fear actually anticipates injury to our limbs and causes us to withdraw blood from our extremities in order to give extra protection. In the case of giving concerts or lectures, this is not altogether appropriate. I once suffered the strange effects of tunnel vision when I was new to the business of giving a lecture. This and memory lapses are due to the mental overload caused by having faster responses, and yet being unable to keep the thoughts on track 'in a 'passive' situation.

These initial experiences can be very frightening. They can undermine your confidence so that you approach the next situation with a sense of dread because you remember how bad the last one was. The effects of the fears we carry around can be debilitating for our careers. Because we lack confidence, we become afraid of failure, afraid of the possibility of creating a bad impression in the social circle that we are obliged to enter. We fear bad reviews, criticism of our work and the implied rejection. We find it hard to take risks because we fear that our audience or our customers will not be sufficiently open~minded to accept our efforts. If we are not careful, our artistic endeavours can be reduced to exercises in 'minimising casualties'. Art can become a very negative experience, or at least a very disheartening one.

Some of us try to fight our fears by taking on the challenge, as we see it. The way we fight is by never allowing ourselves to fail, then we will not be faced with the situation that we dread. We become perfectionists. Sometimes we ultimately become remarkable in our abilities as a result. We may even become respected and famous. But we will always he dissatisfied, because that is the way we have defined our lives. That is the price we pay. Strangely enough, these people who seem from the outside to have everything, are often the ones who find their careers hardest to bear. They have put themselves under so much pressure to succeed that performing is robbed of all its joy.

If this article suggests that all is bleak and hopeless, this is not what I wished to convey. There are a number of ways we can improve the situation. We do not need to let the situation spiral downwards. We are allowing ourselves to develop very negative patterns of thought that become self-reinforcing. The last experience was bad, so we approach the next experience confidently predicting that it will be bad. It comes as no surprise when our prediction comes true: we always knew it in our hearts! This sort of circular argument serves no useful purpose. Religious penitents may feel compelled to inflict injury upon themselves, but for performers and makers, this is definitely not part of the job. Looking back, it often strikes me as strange that we are prepared to spend so many hours working on the content of our performances, and yet give hardly a thought to shaping the experience.

The strategies that we ultimately choose to adopt are necessarily very personal. Some require considerable effort on our part, but the results are often proportional. Any effort that we make is a step in the right direction, and the steps get easier. It is a source of satisfaction to me that through the years I have greatly improved as a performer. I can often now enjoy the experience, and derive pleasure from the reaction of the audience, who show that they they have been "entertained". For we have the power to move people. It is a gift to be treasured and developed. Also, the people we are on-stage, and the people we are offstage are closer than you think. Overcoming fears in one area can change our private lives in unexpected ways too. It really is possible to improve our relationship with ourselves, and then relating to others can become a more relaxed affair as well. Next month I would like to offer a few suggestions that I have found useful.

©1991 Trevor Semple

"Classical Guitar Magazine", January 1992

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